Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tabloid phone hacking



Last night's Dispatches programme on Channel 4 lifted the lid on the newspaper phone hacking scandal. Reporter Alex Thomson, more familiar from Channel 4 news, (follow him on Twitter @alextomo) took us through the background to the story and interviewed a range of people, from Max Clifford to Alistair Campbell, revealing a much bigger and more wide-ranging scandal than many people had imagined.

Last month, the Prime Minister's Press secretary, Andy Coulson, resigned from his post because of the continuing revelations from the phone hacking scandal that dated back to 2006 or even earlier. At that time, Coulson had been editor of the News of the World, when a reporter, Clive Goodman, was found to have hacked into the voicemails of members of the Royal Family. He always denied any knowledge of the reporter's activity, claiming he and a private investigator who did the hacking had been acting on their own, but as more evidence emerges, it was clear from last night's programme that it would be very hard to imagine that he had no knowledge of what was going on.

The programme showed how pressure on reporters to generate stories in the cut-throat competition of tabloid journalism led to them resorting to illegal means. It also pointed to the possibility of cover-ups at the highest levels, with interviewees suggesting that the police were reluctant to investigate because the News of the World had a history of paying police officers for information. The programme also alleged that other newspapers have been phone hacking for several years themselves, which explains why they have given so little coverage to the story.

Alex Thomson was shown just how easy it is for information to be gathered online about an individual, including finding their mobile phone number, and then the trick, which I won't repeat here, for getting access to their voicemail. Suffice to say that it is wise to change the pin code on your voicemail if you don't want reporters snooping on your messages...

The programme suggested around 4000 people's phones have been tapped, and that figure could be much higher, with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and many others now asking the police to see if there was evidence that they too had been victims of it. The newspaper regulatory body, the PCC, was shown to have little or no power as Thomson noted that it had been lied to by the News of the World.

So why does this matter? Well, it seems to me that this is an important question for media students and raises important issues about the media in a democracy. If journalists can get away with hacking into phones and publishing details of people's private conversations which they have collected illegally and then when the police are asked to investigate, nothing happens, that is quite significant.

Labour MP Tom Watson, who we met in a previous blog as one of the few defenders of videogames in Parliament argued in the programme that politicians were too scared to tackle News International over the phone hacking scandal and I think he's right. Tom is worth following on twitter too. @tom_watson And why are politicians scared? Because newspapers still have a lot of power and they are afraid that the Murdoch papers- The Sun, The News of the World, but also The Times and Sunday Times can turn public opinion against them. The stories from hacked voicemails that papers were publishing during the last few years were not just about the antics or personal lives of celebrities, they also included politicians.

Finally, the programme gave a pretty strong indication of why Rupert Murdoch would rush over from the USA to take personal charge of the response to the scandal now- he is attempting to buy the remaining 61% of BSkyB which he doesn't currently own and the government has to decide whether it is in our interests to have someone controlling even more of our media. If he gets a lot of bad publicity, then maybe the decision will go against him, but if he can smooth things over... Of course, he has the help of his son, James Murdoch and the help of Rebekah Brooks, the Chief Executive of News International who admitted to a committee in parliament that the organisation had been known to pay police officers for information. They helped by having the Prime Minister, David Cameron, over to dinner during the christmas break...purely social, nothing to do with any of these shenanigans. That's the same David Cameron who employed the dodgy Andy Coulson as his trusted Press Secretary...

Anyway, if you didn't see it, here it is on 4OD

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